Transit district, citing impasse with Del Mar, renews request to put fence along train tracks

A Coaster train heads north in October along the bluffs in Del Mar.
A Coaster train heads north in October along the bluffs in Del Mar, where North County Transit District plans to build a fence to keep people off the tracks.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Agency is asking federal board to give it sole power to protect rail line on coastal bluff


North County Transit District took new steps Thursday, Nov. 18, to build a fence along the railroad tracks on the coastal bluffs in Del Mar despite the city’s continued opposition to the project.

The board of directors authorized staffers to renew a petition the district filed with the federal Surface Transportation Board. If approved, the petition would give the district sole authority over safety and maintenance projects along the railroad in Del Mar.

NCTD filed the petition Aug. 28, 2020, but early this year agreed to suspend it so that it could work on an agreement with Del Mar and the California Coastal Commission, which also has authority over construction on the bluffs. So far, there’s been no deal, and the transit district intends to proceed.

The district also will ask the federal board to “render an expedited determination” if no agreement is reached by Dec. 31 with Del Mar and the Coastal Commission. And the board directed staff to place an item on its January agenda to consider approval of construction of the Del Mar fence.

“Throughout this process we’ve worked constructively and collaboratively with the Coastal Commission and the city of Del Mar to develop a community-sensitive solution for the bluffs that promotes rail safety and ensures reliability, while providing safe and legal accession,” Executive Director Matt Tucker said in an emailed statement after the meeting.

“Now is the time for the city of Del Mar and the California Coastal Commission to do their part to achieve a successful outcome that precludes the need for regulatory action,” Tucker said.

Trespassing on the tracks is the leading cause of train-related deaths nationally and locally, and the danger is increasing.

Train traffic on the route through Del Mar has grown greatly since the initiation of Coaster commuter service, which added more runs this year and is expected to continue to grow. Also, the newer locomotives are faster and quieter, which makes them more difficult to detect as they approach.

NCTD has talked about improving safety by fencing the tracks for a long time and in 2020 released a design and detailed plan to install a 6-foot-tall, chain-link fence by the end of the year. Large sections of the railroad are fenced in San Diego County, but Del Mar has fought the idea, saying the barrier would destroy the bluffs, block ocean views and restrict access to the beach.

Since then, the district has delayed the project, reduced the overall length of Del Mar’s proposed fence by almost half, lowered the height of some parts to 4 feet and substituted a post-and-cable design for the chain-link in places. It’s also offered to move some of the fencing off the top of the bluffs to the railroad level to avoid blocking ocean views.

Still, Del Mar opposes the fence and other plans to safeguard the tracks, including seawalls, grading the bluffs and other engineering projects.

“The San Diego Association of Governments and North County Transit District have sweeping engineering projects underway and in planning that will forever destroy the entire 1.7-mile Del Mar coastal bluff and beaches below,” states a summary issued Nov. 8 by the Concerned Citizens of Del Mar and the Coastal Bluff Conservancy.

SANDAG and the transit district are studying possible inland routes that would take Del Mar’s section of the track off the bluffs and through a tunnel beneath the city. That project is expect to cost more than $3 billion and take decades to complete, but the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill approved by Congress this month brought new hope that funding could become available.

“To protect and preserve the bluff, a 10-year timeline for railway relocation must be implemented now with far less destructive interim engineering,” states the Del Mar groups’ summary, which was written in part by Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland, who is on the faculty at the University of California San Diego and at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Hundreds of Del Mar residents have written letters opposing the project to the transit district board.

The tracks are part of the 350-mile LOSSAN rail corridor between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Diego. It’s used by Coaster and Metrolink commuter trains, Amtrak passenger trains and BNSF freight trains